Critical police-reform bill on qualified immunity narrowly passes House

Bill’s author delivers emotional speech on House floor

By: - May 11, 2021 8:08 pm
House passes qualified immunity bill

Louisiana legislators convene in the House of Representatives chambers at the State Capitol during the 2020 special session. (Wes Muller/LA Illuminator. Wednesday Sept. 30, 2020)

The Louisiana House lawmakers passed a monumental police reform bill Tuesday night that would dismantle the qualified immunity protection that has long shielded police officers from lawsuits when they use unreasonable force that leads to death or serious bodily injury.

House Bill 609, sponsored by Rep. Edmond Jordan (D-Baton Rouge), was narrowly approved on the House floor in a 53-42 vote following a lengthy debate that grew heated at times and concluded with an emotional address by its sponsor.

Wondering how each member voted? Here’s the tally

The legislation even survived what some House members called a “poison pill amendment” designed to kill it. 

“I’m not interested in playing politics,” Jordan said. “I’m interested in passing good legislation for the state of Louisiana.”

The bill emerged after many meetings of the Louisiana Legislature’s Police Training, Screening and De-escalation Task Force, a 25-member panel established last year in response to national outcry at the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

Qualified immunity exists under both federal and many state laws. In Louisiana, qualified immunity renders police officers and other public employees virtually immune from lawsuits when they violate certain rights or laws. Though it can apply to many government employees, it is almost exclusively used by police officers.

The bill proposes to no longer allow qualified immunity as a defense if a judge finds that an officer’s use of force was unreasonable.

When Jordan stood to argue for his bill Tuesday, he began by reading aloud a long list of names and organizations — many composed of or closely affiliated with law enforcement — that either served on the task force or attended meetings. He said none objected to the proposed reform.

Jordan said he was surprised when he learned Tuesday that a representative from the Fraternal Order of Police (the union that represents municipal police officers in Louisiana) had written a note to some lawmakers to voice his reversal on the issue. In February, Fraternal Order of Police General Counsel Donovan Livaccari attended the House Qualified Immunity Subcommittee and voiced cautious support for the bill. 

Livaccari had asked lawmakers to be mindful of any unforeseen consequences the proposal might have, such as a negative impact on recruiting. “It’s something that we have to keep an eye on closely,” he said at that meeting, adding that the union does not oppose the language as it is currently written. 

Since early in its creation, the bill received steady support from the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, Louisiana District Attorneys Association and the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, among others.

In a May 3 House Civil Law committee meeting, chairman Greg Miller (R-Norco) asked Jordan to promise not to move any amendments that would further strengthen the public’s position at the expense of police officers. Jordan responded and promised to park the bill if anyone amended it in a way that changed its current spirit. He asked in return that no one amend it with a “poison pill” to deliberately kill it.

Rep. Bryan Fontenot (R-Thibodaux) tacked on a last-minute amendment Tuesday that proposes to make members of the public  pay damages to a police officer if they lose a lawsuit against that officer. Fontenot said he would still not support the bill if the House approved his amendment. With Republicans in favor, lawmakers approved the amendment along mostly party lines.

Fontenot said his amendment applies to “frivolous” lawsuits, but Rep. Barry Ivey (R-Central), reading directly from the amendment language, said the word “frivolous” didn’t appear and accused Fontenot of crafting a “poison pill amendment” in an effort to kill the bill rather than work toward common ground. He said Fontenot’s amendment would force people who unsuccessfully sue the police to pay even if they were sincere or lost for reasons other than the merits of the case. When Ivey offered an amendment to add the word “frivolous” to Fontenot’s amendment, the chamber rejected it.

Before the vote, Jordan, addressing a hushed chamber, gave an emotional speech that brought him to the verge of tears.

“We live in two different Americas (and) we live in two different Louisianas,” Jordan, who’s Black, said.  “And some of the issues that we face, I pray to God that you never have to face.”

All the lawmakers who voted against Jordan’s bill were Republicans, but the legislation won the support of 19 Republicans (including House Speaker Clay Schexnayder) and two representatives who vote as independents. 

The bill now moves to the Senate in its amended form.

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Vote tally on Qualified Immunity - HB 609 votes

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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the following 22 years since then, he has worked as a journalist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. Much of his work has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and watchdog coverage of municipal and state government. He has received several honors and recognitions, including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus, a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper, and an adjunct English teacher at Baton Rouge Community College. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his teenage son and his wife, who is also a journalist.

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